The Robby Mook Playbook: The Big Win, Big Risk Philosophy Behind Hillary Clinton’s Campaign

Eight years ago in Nevada, on the first race he managed for Hillary Clinton, Robby Mook provided everyone on the team with a copy of his 175-page training manual. Some staffers‚ the field organizers, received a second item: one standard-issue composition notebook, bound in black-and-white marble, the kind kids use in school.

These were “organizing books.” They were considered vital to the field operation, or as Mook called it, “the program.” And like everything pertaining to the program, the organizing books came with a system, and the system with instructions. In this particular case, they could be found in the manual. (Page 110, “Getting Organized.”)

Your notebook should be divided into three sections per day: calendar, notes, and action items…

Every morning began with a new calendar entry — a simple table, two columns. Down the left-hand margin, organizers wrote out 24 timestamps, one for every half-hour interval in the day. (Twelve hours, minimum.)

To the right, they scheduled and recorded their activity.

You will track progress to goal using the tools provided by the campaign including maintaining your organizing notebook…

For eight months, it went like this. They started in desert summer, 100-degree days. For eight months, they logged every half-hour of every hour of every long and hot day. For eight months, time passed in 30-minute intervals — from the statewide call (which got earlier as the caucuses got closer), to the single break in the daily schedule (lunch, 12:30 to 1 p.m.), to the long slog of the afternoon (the one-on-one meetings with volunteers, the call-time, the house meetings in the evening), to the final, most important task of the day.

At 9 p.m., it was time to report.

All Hillary Clinton for President-Nevada staff are expected to report nightly by 9:15 p.m…. These reports are vital to ensuring that our strategy is succeeding and an important recognition of the tremendous contribution staff are making…

Organizers went first, entering the results of their day into a finicky computer system called the Donkey. Next, the regional directors. Then the field director. It was his job to take their aggregate data and combine it all into one last report. And that went to Mook.

Then the day was over.

All of this — the ledgers, the reports — was in service of the goals. Mook laid them out in the training manual, his initial plan. To beat Barack Obama in Nevada, the Clinton campaign would need to enlist exactly 2,475 volunteers, train 1,744 precinct captains, and generate 24,751 caucus-goers. And to meet those goals, the team would have to meet their smaller daily goals.

The benchmarks underwent constant examination and adjustment. They were continually evaluated, tweaked, and reset, all based on data from the field team’s nightly progress reports. It was a three-part process, played out ceaselessly, day after day — as if the heartbeat of the campaign.

On Jan. 19, 2008, that’s how Clinton won. There was some initial confusion about the national delegate count. Because of his victory in a more heavily weighted district, Obama walked away that night with an extra delegate. But Clinton carried the vote. Mook, at 28 years old, delivered the campaign’s first caucus win — and at a time when they needed it badly. He then took his playbook to Ohio, Indiana, Puerto Rico. Most of his team came with him — and they beat Obama there, too. The operative, clean-cut and unassuming, was Clinton’s most winning state director. He came out of 2008 a star.

But working for Mook was hard. The days were long and unrelenting. The structure was rigid.

Failure to report nightly will have serious consequences and may be grounds for dismissal.

They were exhausted all the time. And yet, the next morning, they woke up and did it all over again… They wanted to.

Some members of the Nevada field team struggled to explain why in interviews — though most pointed to Mook. It’s not that he wasn’t regimented, they said. He was. All the time. But there was something else that kept them going. And it was essential.

In 2010, Mook helped write another manual — this one for Democrats hoping to run a race like Nevada. They called it the “Engagement Campaign.” There, a manager’s job is plainly described as winning: “setting clear, measurable, WINNING campaign goals and creating a culture of excellence and commitment to meet those goals.”

But the other required component, the manual says, is “motivation.”

Since one of your major resources is people — and since people are the resource that generate your other key resource, money — an Engagement Campaign is all about motivating people…

Brian DiMarzio, the deputy field director in Nevada, described it another way. There was one night on the campaign, he said, that didn’t end the way it always did. Clinton happened to be in town, and it was thunderstorming badly. After her event, the staff dragged everything back to headquarters in the pouring rain. The power was out, and they sat there in the darkness, dripping wet.

Then, from the silence, they heard clapping.

It was Mook. He was going into his routine.

It started slow at first. Then other people joined in and the pace picked up and the clapping got louder. It was still dark in the office — and they were still wet. But soon everybody was clapping. They clapped faster and faster, and then they were cheering too, and the sound in the room got so loud and fast it was almost frenzied.

Finally they went still… and Mook started to speak.

“Everyone was back in that place he gets you in,” said DiMarzio. “He’d talk about the event you just did, and about how it’s neck-and-neck, and it’s so close, and” — he slipped into a Mook impression — “‘do you want to look back at the end of this campaign, if we lose by 1,000 votes and think, I could have maybe pulled in a couple hundred votes myself if I’d just done 15 minutes harder each day?’”

It was contagious, DiMarzio said. Former colleagues described similar moments. Sometimes on a staff call — other times in the office. (One referred to it as “the preach.”)

It’s about motivating staff, volunteers, and voters… To do that, you must do more than merely talk about the candidate’s biography and policy positions…

“He could get you to give everything that you had, you would give it, and then thank him for it later,” said DiMarzio. “When you’re working more than 12 hours every day and it’s 10:30 p.m., you finish and think, I’m gonna strangle Robby. But at the end of the day, you’d be clapping with everyone else — and you believed it.”

To engage people, you must inspire them.

“By the end of it, you’re on Team Robby, and you’re not getting off.”

A lot of people are on Team Robby.

It is a big team, full of committed teammates. By the time Clinton lost 2008, it had a name: the “Mook Mafia.” Its members share one thing. They have witnessed or experienced firsthand a campaign with the 35-year-old operative.

In the Mafia group, Mook is equal parts friend, mentor, and figurehead. But for many of the affiliated, Team Robby is as much about its leader as the political philosophy he champions: namely, the power of “organizing.”

Mook is now at the helm of Clinton’s second presidential campaign — and that model will be tested like never before, on the biggest stage there is. In each of the early states, he’ll construct what he did eight years ago in Nevada: a true organizing program.

It will be the biggest challenge of his young career. Mook has managed plenty of races since 2008. Most recently, he helped Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Democratic fundraiser and Clinton family friend, become governor of Virginia. But now Mook is running a campaign larger than his background in field. And to accomplish what he does best, he’ll have to foster the environment his campaigns require.

At the center of the intractable, messy thing known as “Clintonworld,” Mook needs another Nevada: that rare mix of discipline and accountability with enthusiasm and encouragement that makes his field programs possible.

It will be a momentous first — for Mook, for his followers, and for a generation of operatives who see themselves as organizers. Never before has a manager constructed a national campaign operation like this, so deliberately or so squarely, under the banner of organizing or in the mold of the so-called “Engagement Campaign.”

Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at a high school in Las Vegas in 2007.

Isaac Brekken / AP

About 10 years ago, Clinton was pitched on an early version of this strategy. It was, she was told, a “new kind of organizing” — and it was going to change politics.

This was the summer after the 2004 election, when a collection of campaign aides from that cycle got the chance to attend a private gathering of Democratic senators. It was an audience with some of the party’s top legislators — and a rare opportunity to speak directly with the senator many in the room viewed as the party’s next nominee.

So when the moment came, they talked to Clinton about organizing. Howard Dean’s presidential campaign had done something special in New Hampshire, they said. And there were technological advances rapidly changing the face of elections. Imagine the gains Democrats could make, the operatives told Clinton, if they could weave it all together.

Dean, of course, didn’t make it past February in the primaries. But for many of the operatives and activists who came up in politics around the time of his brief rise, the former Vermont governor helped redefine the very concept of “field.”

Most campaigns focused almost exclusively on building supporter lists, often from scratch. The effort requires identifying voters — supporters, undecideds, backers of the opponent, and various shades in between. The process, called “voter contact” in field-speak, is simple, time-consuming, and necessary. And it happens only one way: door by door, call by call, for hours and hours, every day. Campaigns can use staff and volunteers — but often, they pay a team of canvassers to do the work.

In New Hampshire, Dean aides flipped the traditional field operation on its head.

They pulled people off voter contact — away from the doors and the phones — and instead trained them as organizers in the tradition of the ’60s and ’70s. Using techniques from the protest and labor movements of that era — one-on-one meetings, house meetings — the Dean campaign set out to build a volunteer army.

The idea went was this: Organizers sought to cultivate relationships with voters, enlist them as volunteers, and then develop those volunteers into “volunteer leaders” — who would invest even more time, take on even more responsibility, and recruit even more volunteers. The objective was an organization of devoted supporters, not cogs in the machine or paid labor. And the result, ultimately, was far greater capacity for voter contact.

The volunteers, together, could do more at the phones and the doors and on Election Day than the campaign ever could have otherwise. Or at least, that was the bet. Each half-hour spent on organizing — finding, meeting with, or training volunteers — was a half-hour that could be spent simply identifying voters.

But the risk was worth pursuing, the Democratic aides told Clinton in 2005.

Zack Exley, an adviser on the Dean race who attended the meeting with the senators, said that he and the other operatives urged Clinton to embrace the organizing practices of 2004 — and to push officials at the Democratic National Committee to do the same.

“We were saying to her, ‘Senator, you need to take care of that,’” Exley recalled of the exchange. “‘This is a new kind of field organizing that’s possible. If you connect it with the right online stuff, it’ll change everything. You gotta get on this.’”

Clinton was a receptive listener — but remained unconvinced.

“The organizing takes care of itself,” the senator told the operatives, according to Exley. “Once you have that clear message, then organizing just takes care of itself.”

She believed organizing would “rise up around a good message automatically,” Exley said. “Kind of like if setting up a field campaign was like placing a media buy.”

Three years later, Clinton lost on message and on organizing.

Barack Obama captured Democrats’ eagerness for something different. And in both Iowa and South Carolina, despite pressure from headquarters to keep up with voter-contact metrics, aides were given the room they needed. Many were among the upstarts of the 2004 races, an ascendant new class of operatives-as-organizers.

Clinton had some of them, too. Mook won in Nevada — and his mentor, Karen Hicks, the engineer of Dean’s New Hampshire program, oversaw the early states. But aides at headquarters hardly made a full-scale commitment to organizing. Even as Mook went to work building his field program, his operation remained badly under-resourced.

“Robby ran a very organized campaign on a shoestring in Nevada,” as Hicks put it.

One summer day, as temperatures climbed into triple digits out West, a Clinton aide back in Virginia sent a staff-wide email to say: There’s ice cream cake in the freezer.

“We never got any of the resources we needed,” said one former Nevada staffer. “We have 75-year-old ladies we’re sending out to canvass in the 110-degree heat… and somebody in Arlington is saying there’s ice cream cake in the freezer?”

This time, Clinton has made organizing the priority.

Campaign officials have said that the state directors in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will not only have the resources they need — but they’ll also get the candidate often, and in settings tailored to benefit their organizing efforts. Internally, they have even replaced the word “field” with “organizing” in staffers’ titles.

As Exley put it, with Mook in charge, “she’s not making the same mistake this time.”

But there will be challenges. One question is whether the organizing model can actually scale effectively across the board in a presidential campaign. Obama came close in 2008. But before that, there were only isolated cases: John Kerry did it in Iowa in 2004. And Dean, whose campaign helped introduce organizing conceptually to a national electoral audience, really only did it in one state — New Hampshire.

Hicks, the operative who pulled it off, said the approach “lends itself to a primary” — and to a presidential candidate capable of exciting volunteer support. But there are two things organizing requires, and they stay the same, she said, “no matter what the campaign.” First is a commitment to disciplined goals. Second is a commitment to the “shared values” — the methods and the principles that guide the campaign.

Mook has excelled at both. But it doesn’t happen on its own. His campaigns come with requirements — a particular kind of leadership and a particular kind of anatomy.

If there is a prototype of the Mook campaign, it is Nevada in 2008.

For the evangelical belief in data — look to the sign that hung on his office wall, a reminder to himself and the staff of the three steps in their ongoing, data-driven process. “Set Goals, Experiment and Learn, Celebrate and Appreciate,” it read.

For the sense of “accountability,” fostered by the subculture of field and all its peculiarities — look to his idiosyncratic shorthand. One favorite: “No silos!” (Always said as if with an exclamation point.) The meaning: Keep communication open between departments. Another Mook term was the “plus delta.” (A twist on the “action item.”) This one, derived from the Greek letter denoting change, was a word for something specific that a staffer could improve or incorporate into his or her goals.

For the self-discipline — look to his fascination with “personal mastery,” which he preached to some of his staffers. It’s a concept from The Fifth Discipline, a 1990 book by MIT’s Peter Senge. Personal mastery is defined as a lifelong practice, divided into three parts: redefining and deepening your personal vision, focusing your energy, and “seeing reality objectively” as it pertains to others and, most important, to yourself. (The book touches on other Mook tropes: Senge writes that organizations are best built around a “shared vision,” not a leader’s goals or personality. And teams, he says, develop “extraordinary capacities” beyond the sum total abilities of individual members.)

And for his precise focus on the thing this was all for, the final goal — look to Dec. 12, 2007, when just one month before the caucuses, Mook got his regionals together to deliver big news. The numbers they’d all been working toward, the ones in the manual, wouldn’t be enough. They needed to double their goal — from 24,751 caucus-goers to 60,000.

Most of the team was alarmed. There’s a photo of two field staffers, Stuart Rosenberg and Dan DeBauche, as they listen to Mook in the meeting. (It still makes the rounds every few months.) Rosenberg is dismayed, bent over in his seat, head in hand. “Stu looks like he’s about to have a coronary,” said DeBauche, the regional field director for South Las Vegas, Henderson, and Boulder City.

DeBauche is shown leaning back in his chair, hands clasped behind his head. He looks fine. “Everyone was freaking out, but internally we already had a plan,” he said. A couple nights before the meeting, Mook and Marlon Marshall, the field director, had pulled DeBauche in to help game out the new numbers. The expression, he said of the photo, reflected the calm of the boss. Mook knew it was possible, so long as they could answer the one question that mattered: “How do we get to 52% with this new reality?”

DeBauche, left, with Rosenberg, right, in the meeting with Mook and Marshall in December 2007.

Courtesy of Zack Exley

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